User Tools

Site Tools


Towards Technosophy

Towards Technosophy. In: Towards Technosophy (2022)

Baruch Gottlieb

As Katerina mentioned in her introduction, this book is a record and review of our time together in Robion, during the week of Vilèm Flusser’s birthday in May 2022. As a book, it is an object, as well as a project, where we explicitly attend to the particularities of print publication in the age of all-at-once information. The formulation of the various contributions are in intimate exchange with the design process. This book also exists in a context to be elaborated also by you, the reader, on our wiki at which can also be conveyed in a QR code:

The URL in the shape or symbol known as Quick Response (QR) is a translation of the ASCII encoded alphanumeric characters of the URL where the landing page for the online elements of this book are stored. As you can see in fig. 2, most of it is encoded in sets of eight binary indicators, which, taken together represent numbers between 0 and 255. These numbers correspond to alphanumeric glyphs according to the ASCII-extended scheme (see fig. 3). ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange is a fundamental encoding mode for information in computers (both commands and content) which hasn’t changed much since 1972. All URLS devolve to ASCII. But these characters, on the data level of the computational device, are not only not the letters we see on the display, they are actually serieses of charged or uncharged capacitors, conventionally represented as “words” of ones and zeros, enlarged by many orders of magnitude. . All the 26 characters in two cases, 10 digits and other basic punctuation and symbols used in English are encoded into the set binary digits starting from the rightmost set of 4 which correspond to conventional alphanumeric characters as organised according to this scheme. Here is the corresponding binary sequence for the URL above:

01101000 01110100 01110100 01110000 01110011 00111010 00101111 00101111 01110111 01101001 01101011 01101001 00101110 01100110 01101100 01110101 01110011 01110011 01100101 01110010 00101110 01100011 01101100 01110101 01100010 00101111 01100100 01101111 01101011 01110101 00101110 01110000 01101000 01110000 00111111 01101001 01100100 00111101 01100110 01110011 01110011 01011111 01110010 01101111 01100010 01101001 01101111 01101110 00110010 00110000 00110010 00110010 01011111 01110000 01110101 01100010 01101100 01101001 01100011 01100001 01110100 01101001 01101111 01101110

As you can see in the highlighted text the sections 0010 0000 0010 0010 are clearly the binary numbers 2-0-2-2, i.e. the year our summer school took place which transcoded in in the URL: . The “human readable” text of the URL is a convention, a translation of a technical code which points to computer operations necessary for the realisation of the significance of the URL.
Fig. 2 Red blocks show the 8-bit binary data sections on a QRcode

Fig. 3 US-ASCII Code Chart. Scanner copied from the material delivered with TermiNet 300 impact type printer with Keyboard, February 1972, General Electric Data communication Product Dept., Waynesboro, Virginia.

These binary figures of 0 and 1 are visual metaphors for something imperceptible to humans, the correlated electronic charges, or lack thereof, in arrays of nanoscale transistors in computer RAM or other storage. In other words, digital data is not numbers but arrays of electronic charges in the material of memory cells. A “1” is a high threshold voltage in the capacitor of a memory cell, a “0” is voltage below a low threshold. Interestingly, even in data a zero is not completely empty, there are always trace charges which are simply ignored below a threshold.

Digital data is infinitesimal, but not without size, time or place. Every bit of data must “live” on a physical memory surface somewhere. And digital data communicates extremely fast, close to the speed of light, but not immediately. These distinctions, the materiality, situatedness and temporality of digital data is important for us to be able to criticise the technical images we use to attempt to grapple with our technological condition. URLs and any computer data exists on a level of experience alien to human empirical experience and must be translated, transformed, upscaled and slowed down for it to be rendered humanly perceptible, interpretable and for it to perform its social and cultural intended function. The 1s and 0s, and the charges on computer memory they represent, could just as easily be displayed as pictures or colours or even played back as tiny sounds or videos.

In his video interview at Osnabrück with Miklós Peternak1), Flusser suggested that “technical images”, rather than merely rational analyses in text, might help the citizens of the electronic age better grapple with their world. Certainly when it comes to understanding the world of speed of light digital data there are radical epistemic challenges. We do not have the words to accurately address what is going on at the nano-scale level of computer operations. We attempt to bridge the epistemic gaps using words which we use to refer to meso-scale phenomena of conventional human perception. Computation, a process which is fundamental to our understanding of the world, is a process we can only refer to through metaphors. This, Flusser warns, begins to undermine the legitimacy of language as a means of personal or social self-realisation, as essential to democratic politics, to maintain human agency and avoid being overdetermined by automated processes and potentially lead to a new technological “barbarism”.

In his essay, Orders of Magnitude and Humanism, Flusser precisely identifies two realms of human activity which are availed by technical means, the infinitesimal and the astronomical2). Conventional human epistemology and its institutions take place between the two extreme realms made accessible by technical instruments. Flusser warns that we must develop “new humanisms” for these alien realms of knowledge or risk being barbarized by them. This may appear ironic for the philosopher of “post-history”, but it is clear that “post-history” is not a goal but a condition of thinking which was built on historical processes running at light speed within electronic devices, in other words: most-history. But how do we actually develop these “new humanisms” which will provide us with the thinking practices which can help us effectively grapple with our technological condition, to be projects rather than subjects?

One clue towards how to develop “new humanisms” for extreme scales of knowledge is to examine what is happening at the frontiers between “human scale” and the scales beyond direct human perception, what Flusser calls “grey zones”. “The new humanism would have to criticise the grey zones between the orders of magnitude, that is, the zones in which dwell artificial intelligence, artificial life, and artificial immortality.”

Borrowing the notion from Harun Farocki, who explored what he called “operational images”3), I would call the knowledge of super- and infra-human scale phenomena “instrumental” knowledge. This means that, between the human thinker and the information from the alien scales they receive, there are instruments, apparatuses, which interact with the alien phenomena and provide human-scale perceptible information about these interactions. To understand this “instrumental” knowledge, it is necessary to understand the instrument which affords the knowledge, not necessarily in all its functioning parts but as a social, industrial product, as a record and result of social organisation. In other words, to “humanise” the images we get through the Large Hadron Collider, we need to look at the physical construction of the LHC and the social organisation which planned, constructed and runs it.

In a mode of Historical New Materialism, one can read the instrument or apparatus, which provides the access to the new information, as a record of the vast constellation of human-, and through these, non-human contributions, concretised in the form of the functioning apparatus and its aesthetic products. This provides a human scale correspondence intractable from the out-of-scale information as it appears to be grasped semantically. In other words, within all information consumed as information in media, there is in the media apparatus a legacy of inherent human activity and social organisation which can potentially help humanise that knowledge.

Joler and Crawford’s 2018 “Anatomy of AI” follows this intuition4). In a massive, and massively detailed cartographical survey of the various processes and concepts at work in AI, this project is as pertinent in what it displays as in what it leaves out, since no single depiction can overcome the limitations of rational description. Nevertheless, as an artistic invitation to socially convene around the problem of understanding AI, it can participate in the development of new social conventions adequate to the political challenges of our time. Marshall McLuhan also insisted on the importance of attending to the work of artists, synthesising intuitions about their contemporary conditions into forms able to convene communities of concern across disparate disciplinary and cultural backgrounds5).

The artworks and photo-philosophical experiments produced in our summer school were very much of a provisional and dialogical character. They emerged from the participants in their grappling with intuitions and information of various scales of experience through experiments with drones and microscopes, smartphones and film, in the brilliant Provence sunlight and in the darkness of caves, and in the speculative exchanges which erupted, in dialogues with Flusser, our instruments and each other.

Another aspect of Flusser’s proposal for “new humanisms” is to learn how the new technologies can allow us to think differently, synthetically, even socially, encountering the crisis of the literate, private Enlightenment individual with its now undeniable condition in natural-cultural reproduction. Flusser famously explored video in his collaborations with Fred Forest, not as a medium to record his thinking but as a medium which allowed him to explore modes of thinking which are not possible in print, for example tone of voice, gesture and a flipping of the speaker/listener positions. Thinking with and against the apparatus, Flusser also attempted a radically new form of philosophical teaching in his collaboration with Bernd Wingert on the Hypertext prototype.

In the spirit of these experiments, the online version of this book is built into the FlusserWiki. It is radically interrelational with transclusive links to the references in the wiki and in the Internet in general, as well as discussion pages and general editability which allow users of these texts to expand on them, criticise them and explore bespoke lines of thinking through all the articles and resources. The wiki apparatus affords philosophical method in keeping with Flusser’s closing suggestion in the “Orders of Magnitude” essay, that we learn how to criticise something without being able to name it directly, by “beating around the bush” and “winding” our way to it.

In order to be able to maintain the priority of the human order of magnitude, the new humanism has to refer to something nameless. It must circle it and beat around the bush. This may serve as an explanation (and apology) for the rather intricate argument of this essay. By the way, some people affirm that God writes in winding lines in order to hit his goal. The new humanism is forced to break out of the linearity of technical progress into the winding.

Thanks to the wiki software, and maybe some as yet unknown affordances, the online version of this book is able to continue the explorations in the print version with anyone concerned. Further, the online version will be able to host dynamic content such as videos, sounds, and even live events and other experiments, which can participate in the thinking. The printed book, in its provisional completeness, provides a counterbalance to the dynamism of the online version. We shall observe, analyse and learn how these diverge or intertwine, how they are appropriated and what roles they may come to serve in correspondence.

Baruch Gottlieb Berlin 191122

Vilém Flusser, On writing, complexity and the technical revolutions. Interview by Miklós Peternák in Osnabrück, European Media Art Festival, September 1988. In: We shall survive in the memory of others, ed. Miklós Peternák (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König), 10min30s.
Vilém Flusser, ed. Andreas Ströhl, Writings. Electronic Mediations, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Trevor Paglen, Operational Images. In: e-flux journal 59, 2014,
Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, Anatomy of an AI System, 2018,
Marshall McLuhan, Man and Media (York University Public Lecture, 1977), “The artist’s insights or perceptions seem to have been given to mankind as a providential means of bridging the gap between evolution and technology. The artist is able to program, or reprogram, the sensory life in a manner which gives us a navigational chart to get out of the maelstrom created by our own ingenuity. The role of the artist in regard to man and the media is simply survival.“
You could leave a comment if you were logged in.
towards_technosophy/towards_technosophy.txt · Last modified: 2023/01/31 22:38 by steffi_winkler